The debate around Joe Paterno in recent years has centered on whether he has lost touch with the game, and with the way college football succeeds nowadays. Now, he’s surrounded by a much larger furor — that of sexual-abuse charges filed against a longtime former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, a controversy that has already claimed the jobs of two Penn State officials, including athletic director Tim Curley.
For a long time, I’ve had a dual feeling about Paterno. One, he’s been great for the game and great for college athletics (among other things, donating millions to the library at Penn State). And given his altruism and the fact he doesn’t break rules, he ought to be able to leave the program on his own terms.
But here’s the second part: I think he should have left years ago.
Penn State has a huge fan following, it’s in the middle of a populous state and close to large numbers on the East Coast, and yet the Nittany Lions haven’t really recently achieved to that level. They’ve been good, not great.
Still, I love the concept of stability Paterno represents. In an era of trigger-happy athletic directors and disgruntled fan bases, Paterno has been the definition of rock-solid, somebody you could depend upon while you read your latest coach-on-the-hot-seat advisory. Even if he has seemed hopelessly outdated in recent years.
Ironically, it might be that stay-the-course instinct that now has Paterno embroiled in the Sandusky mess. When a then-graduate assistant went to Paterno’s home to report a suspicious incident involving Sandusky in 2002, Paterno took it to Curley.
But he didn’t report it to the police, and the Pennsylvania state police commissioner, Frank Noonan, Monday questioned Paterno’s decision-making, raising the issue of “moral responsibility.”
The grand jury finding that resulted in charges against Sandusky, Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz (the latter two for not reporting to police and for perjury in testimony) didn’t implicate Paterno. So we can only speculate how forthcoming Paterno was in dealing with Curley. Did he make mention of the incident and then never broach it again, perhaps feeling loyalty toward Sandusky and trying to walk a middle ground? Or did he press the issue with Curley, seeking some resolution? Only Joe knows.
“This guy grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting and wanted to live in one in State College,” Paterno’s son Scott told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “The sad reality is, even in Norman Rockwell paintings, there’s the back side of the painting. It’s just a very dark, ugly thing that happened around us that we didn’t see.”
Paterno, 84, has been head coach at Penn State since 1966, and an assistant there since 1950. Whatever the degree of his involvement, it’s remarkably sad that after all these years, the rendering of his life’s work will include this.